Distinctions and evaluations

Les Misérables, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, April 26; Aida, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Sydney, April 27

A COUPLE of years ago I interviewed Stephen Sondheim ahead of the Melbourne season of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and I’m afraid I really didn’t get anything out of him that he hadn’t said many, many times before. This included his definition of the difference between opera and musical theatre. When, for instance, Sweeney Todd was presented on Broadway, it was a musical, he said. When Sweeney Todd was staged by an opera company, it was an opera.

It’s a reasonable point. As Bernard Williams writes frankly in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992 edition), after discussing operetta, Singspiel, the use of Sprechgesang and so on: “The relations between opera and the other forms that are contrasted with it are thus complex, and the distinctions (in particular, that between opera and operetta) are to some degree arbitrary. The present position is that ‘opera’ is to some extent an evaluative term, used to refer to sung drama which is either ‘serious’ enough, or traditional enough in form and technique, to be staged in an opera house.”

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

That last phrase points to the circular nature of this knotty question of classification. A sung drama can be called an opera because it’s considered worthy of being in an opera house – which of course depends on whom is doing the considering, or evaluating. Sweeney Todd in an opera house? It’s an opera. Perhaps, although I don’t care what you want to call it, other than a great, great work. (Grove: Opera, It., from Lat. opera, plural of opus, ‘work’.)

Just to muddy the issue, the work of a contemporary company such as Sydney Chamber Opera is staged at Carriageworks, a multi-arts venue that concentrates on new work. I doubt that Kate Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s hour-long work The Rabbits, of which Opera Australia was a co-producer, will be seen in a traditional opera space, not to mention that the singers are amplified, which for many people would bar it from being called an opera. Perth International Arts Festival, a co-commissioner with the Melbourne Festival, cannily called The Rabbits “a new work of operatic theatre”.

PIAF was right to make that distinction, and I don’t think in this case it is arbitrary. The Rabbits’ music, while it had some qualities one might consider operatic (overlapping vocal lines, for instance), was not of the complexity one associates with opera – not quite “traditional enough in form and technique”. But to get back to my point about Sweeney Todd, who cares what box you put it in, as long as it’s good?

The openings in Sydney of Les Misérables and Aida on consecutive nights brought to the fore these distinctions and evaluations.

It goes without saying that musically speaking, Aida, this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, starts any face-off with the unbridgeable advantage of having been written by Verdi. The composer of Les Mis, Claude-Michel Schönberg, is no Verdi, although the same can be said of many – most? – composers of opera, let alone those firmly assigned to the musical theatre realm. Schönberg nevertheless writes memorable, effective melodies that vividly colour and support the stage action.

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Schönberg also allows himself a few “serious” references as most Le Mis aficionados know, and they fit seamlessly into his score, which is interesting. Jean Valjean’s Bring Him Home may well remind lovers of Madama Butterfly of the Humming Chorus, and I am grateful to Robert J. Elisberg’s blog for alerting me to the ways in which Little Cosette’s Castle on a Cloud has resonances of Rameau.

One reason, though, why Schönberg and his music theatre confrères will never sound like operatic composers is the non-negotiable requirement that music-theatre lyrics be clearly understood at every moment. In his fine New Yorker obituary for Andrew Porter, the greatly esteemed music critic who died a few days ago, Alex Ross wrote: “Like Wagner, he believed that operas should generally be performed in the native language of the audience—a conviction that marked him as something other than a purist.” Like opera used to be, musical theatre is the theatre of the people and therefore presented in the language of its audience – although when opera is sung in English one sometimes still needs recourse to the surtitles, partly because there may be multiple vocal lines and partly because sometimes diction isn’t what it could be or the conductor isn’t being helpful with the orchestral balance.

Another difference is that music-theatre lyrics pretty much say what they mean and mean what they say. There are few music-theatre lyricists as sophisticated and multi-layered as Sondheim. One may enter a production of a successful musical with no knowledge and leave with full, uncomplicated apprehension of every turn of plot and emotion. You can call it unsubtle if you will, but it’s powerful magic and it’s why Andrew Lloyd Webber is a very rich man. (He likes his Puccini too – Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera employs a phrase very like one in Quello che tacete in La fanciulla del West. Let’s put it this way: royalties were paid to Puccini heirs.

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

So far Aida is out in front by quite a margin, although it’s fun to think that perhaps Les Mis could be considered the more serious drama, in that its love triangle (Eponine-Marius-Cosette) is subordinate to the theme of oppression and revolution. In Aida the love triangle (Amneris-Radamès-Aida) is to the fore with political upheaval secondary.

Musically, though, Aida is the goods. Late-stage Verdi in his pomp.

But we’re not just listening. Sung drama is a combination of score, libretto, vocal quality, acting and staging.

In its current production Aida’s musical splendours are forced into the service of an astonishingly vulgar presentation. What was director Gale Edwards thinking? The dominating scenic element in Mark Thompson’s design, a giant head of Nefertiti, is inspired but presides over a sad mish-mash of images and ideas. It is one of those concepts that throws in costuming from across the ages to indicate that the themes are timeless. So there are modern business-suited guards, Fascist soldiers, priests of Ancient Egypt, women overpowered by gargantuan gowns, female dancers in a kick-line (don’t ask) wearing abbreviated versions of traditional African attire and male dancers got up as jackals with a 1970s rock-star vibe by way of a D-grade sci-fi film. Well, it’s work for the dancers, although not choreographer Lucas Jervies’s finest hour.

The mute reference to current Middle East oil politics is very odd. Why all those barrels stacked up the back? It’s not as if Egypt is one of the great oil-producing countries and at war with Ethiopia over the resource. Obviously we were meant to think about current geo-politics but the idea looked and felt tacked on.

Les Mis, ensconced at the rather operatic Capitol Theatre, pulls together its various themes brilliantly. I saw it first in Melbourne in July last year and wrote then: “The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.”

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

There seem to be more directors than you can poke a stick at for Les Mis but despite the crowd (two directors, two in charge of musical staging) the production is exceptionally coherent. From a staging perspective, Les Mis is the goods. Producer Cameron Mackintosh has done it again, and this summation indicates the most fundamental difference between opera and musical theatre. The first is the art of the composer, the second the art of the producer. And yes, I know there are many who think producers aren’t artists, but then I think of Diaghilev and dismiss that argument. And yes, there are exceptions, such as Sondheim, who is always the exception.

Fortunately for Aida, on opening night there were two stellar performances. Soprano Latonia Moore was a glorious Aida with dark power at the bottom of the range and warm glow at the top. She acted every moment with conviction and made Ritorna Vincitor and O Patria mia the shining dramatic highlights. As Amneris, mezzo Milijana Nikolic, tall and glamorous, deftly wrangled her series of eye-popping frocks – brava! – and persuasively made the transition from haughty, conniving princess to woman of feeling.

The principal artists over at Les Mis were equally thrilling. Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) are tremendous singing actors who have different challenges – Gleeson has to make saintliness compelling and touching; Tee to make blind obsession worthy of understanding. And may the gods of opera forgive me, but both were much more vocally interesting than Walter Fraccaro as Aida’s Radamès. The night I heard him Fraccaro gave a performance that was unsubtle and unvarying. He can sing loudly, that’s for sure. (There were some issues with the amplification at Aida, but all the principals were singing under the same conditions …)

Further down the cast list Aida was graced by the splendid Amonasro of Michael Honeyman and David Parkin’s Ramfis. In Les Mis, Kerrie Anne Greenland (Eponine), for whom this is her first professional engagement, was spectacularly good. In Melbourne I thought her voice wonderful but that she sang the notes all in the right places and rather too dutifully in her big song, On My Own. In Sydney she was able to move within the music to make it individual. She’s a tremendous talent. After what sounded a nervous start – there was a very pronounced beat in the voice – Patrice Tipoki sang feelingly and movingly as the unfortunate Fantine.

Others in Les Mis fared less well. I thought the directors allowed Lara Mulcahy as Madame Thénardier to overdo the grotesque comic business (when you overshadow the Thénardier of Trevor Ashley it’s quite a feat), that Euan Doidge was a too small-voiced Marius, that Emily Langridge was a very unsettled-sounding Cosette and that Chris Durling lacked that last necessary drop of personal and vocal charisma as Enjolras, leader of the student revolutionaries.

Wouldn’t you think those quite serious reservations would knock Les Mis out of the running for Best Sung Drama in the final week of March 2015? But no, they didn’t. Les Mis was, despite the glories of Latonia Moore and despite Verdi, the much more satisfying theatrical experience. And don’t blame Opera on Sydney Harbour, an innovation I adore: Last year’s Best Sung Drama? That would be Madama Butterfly, on the harbour.

Opera and musical theatre in 2014

MUSICAL theatre in Sydney got a boost in 2014 with the arrival of Hayes Theatre Co. When Darlinghurst Theatre Company won the residency at the lovely new Eternity Playhouse, a group of music-theatre producers collectively known as Independent Music Theatre took over the Darlinghurst’s former premises, a small theatre in Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point. They named their venture after legend Nancye Hayes and got off to a cracking start with Sweet Charity in February.

Indie group Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre was originally part of the group, but quietly withdrew during the year and recently staged its Sondheim on Sondheim at the Reginald, the Seymour Centre’s smallest theatre space – and an endearing one too. Squabbalogic will be seen there again in 2015.

Regular work from both groups gives Sydney a strong alternative to the handful of mega-musicals that hog the city’s pitiful number of big houses for long runs.

On the opera front a three-tier system (albeit a lop-sided one) is settling in. Brilliant young outfit Sydney Chamber Opera, which concentrates on new work and Australian premieres of small-scale operas, now has a residency at Carriageworks. That should give it some extra security. Since 2002 Pinchgut Opera has performed works rarely heard in Australia, often from the baroque period. This year it staged two operas for the first time since its inception and will do so again in 2015. Last month Pinchgut and Opera Australia announced that Pinchgut would be given office space at OA’s Opera Centre in Surry Hills. OA has in the past helped with rehearsal space, costumes and props but in a show of solidarity has increased its commitment. Pinchgut made it clear it would be retaining its independence.

At the big end of the market is Opera Australia, obviously, but let’s not forget Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It presents only one semi-staged production a year but the scale of the music-making is tremendous and unmissable. For OA it hasn’t been the happiest of years, with the organisation regularly and severely criticised. I’ll talk about some of those things in a later blog on the year’s arts issues. For now, let’s look at what I loved in 2014. As with theatre, my favourites are presented in order of transmission. They include operas and musicals seen in New York and London.

OPERA

His Music Burns, Sydney Chamber Opera at the Sydney Festival (January): This was an entrancing double bill of rarities, both Australian premieres. György Kurtág’s … pas à pas – nulle part… and George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill were seen in elegant, spare productions and performed with musicianship of the highest order. Really special

Anna Netrebko in L’Elisir d’amore, Metropolitan Opera, New York (February): What to say about Netrebko except that she is deservedly a huge, huge star. Apart from having a voice of dark beauty, electrifying power and easy flexibility, Netrebko’s was a divinely acted Adina: strong, funny and touching. The sexy bass-baritone Erwin Shrott played Doctor Dulcamara as a very naughty boy indeed and with a voice to die for. Apparently the separation late last year of Shrott and Netrebko after a long personal partnership hasn’t affected their work. They seemed very jolly together on stage. A fabulous night.

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly, Metropolitan Opera (February): I’d longed to see this for years and I wasn’t disappointed. The setting is little more than a dark, glossy void that subtly reflects the action. Within are simple white screens that move to create a space or camouflage the removal of things or people. It could be seen as a giant lacquer box with white compartments, which seems an excellent place to put Butterfly, and Butterfly. It’s not an intimate setting, but the high artifice – for me at least – heightened the emotional content. The crowning effect is the use of Bunraku puppetry, most fascinatingly and powerfully to represent Butterfly’s little boy. I heard Cio-Cio-San sung by South African Amanda Eschalez. When this production comes to Perth International Arts Festival in February it will feature the soprano who originated the role for Minghella, Mary Plazas.

Christine Goerke’s Elektra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra (February): Goerke’s soprano is a huge instrument, full, plush and radiant with no sense of strain despite having to soar over the mighty forces of David Robertson and the SSO in the Concert Hall. Elektra’s is a magnificent obsession despite the madness underpinning it. Goerke gloried in the woman’s unwavering pursuit of justice and gave it a terrible beauty. She was incandescent in a production that really was very close to being fully staged. The SSO produces music dramas on a scale impossible in the Joan Sutherland Theatre – the last time Elektra was heard in Sydney was in 2000 as part of the Sydney Festival, in a production at the Capital Theatre with Deborah Polaski as Elektra and Simone Young conducting the SSO.

Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia (March): It was somewhat disheartening to see that OA believed – and I imagine it was correct – it could sell only eight performances of Eugene Onegin. It is such a ravishing piece. One could quibble about aspects of Kaspar Holten’s production – a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Fondazione Teatro Regio, Turin – but there was no quibbling where Nicole Car is concerned. She was greeted at the curtain with stamps and cheers after a glorious Tatyana and deserved every accolade she has received. The young singer – she is not yet 30 – is in full bloom. Her soprano is richly coloured, lyrical in quality and gorgeously produced from top to bottom, and Car looks a dream on stage.

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (March): Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura was all-conquering in the production designed and directed by La Fura dels Baus. Her desperate realisation that she was being abandoned and her son removed saw her racing across the mighty outdoor stage in frantic anguish. It was devastating.

Robert Carsen’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Royal Opera, London (May): Carsen’s 2002 version, staged for the first time at Covent Garden this year, was exceptionally spare and beautiful. The set was almost non-existent, with the drama created by the women singing the doomed nuns and a vast force of chorus members, extra chorus and actors who formed a chilling, menacing mob. Simon Rattle conducted and Sally Matthews was a luminous Blanche. A special night.

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Mayakovsky, by Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon (July): Yes, SCO bobs up again. Seeing and hearing their work is as bracing as it gets. New music, new libretto, intelligent production, cracking performances. What’s not to like?

Don Giovanni, Opera Australia (July): Who knew the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage could look this big? Designer Robert Jones worked all sorts of magic for David McVicar’s Gothic-tinged production of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, strewing bones and skulls about and putting centre-stage an imposing stairway that was never going to lead to heaven. Our anti-hero was a dead man walking among the undead.

Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut Opera (December): Pinchgut knocked it out of the park again. Lindy Hume’s direction, Tony Assness’s set, Alistair Trung’s costumes and Matthew Marshall’s lighting were perfectly judged to make virtues of the City Recital Hall’s strict limitations for dramatic presentation. There’s nothing limited about the hall’s acoustic, in which the opera glowed. Caitllin Hulcup (Iphigénie) and Grant Doyle (Oreste) were on fire and the women of choir Cantillation, Pinchgut’s chorus of choice, were particularly outstanding. Under Antony Walker, the Orchestra of the Antipodes honoured Gluck’s ravishing music with a performance that made the senses reel and the heart sing.

MUSICAL THEATRE

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Broadway (February): If you’ve seen the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets you know the story (the source material is a book by Roy Horniman). Impoverished Monty Navarro discovers he comes from aristocratic stock. Only eight members of the D’Ysquith family stand between him and a title. Alec Guinness memorably played all members of that august family (called the D’Ascoynes in the movie); in this witty, sweet and beautifully staged musical that particular gauntlet was taken up by Jefferson Mays, who was pure delight. Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) and Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) wrote extremely jolly songs with a light music-hall touch that feels authentic. Monty’s love interests, Sibella Hallward and Phoebe D’Ysquith, are high soprano roles and the clear, silvery sound is a million miles away from the big power-ballad sound so often heard in contemporary musicals. Alexander Dodge’s set design put a dear little stage within the stage, complete with a swooshing red curtain that falls to hide the next scene change. And there were many, all executed with much flair.

What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, New York Theatre Workshop (February): The stage was decked out with a jumble of old sofas, a tower of guitars with a few other objects thrown in, rugs on the walls and many glowing lamps. It looked like an explosion in a student bedsit, only more welcoming. The show was devoted, obviously, to the songs of Burt Bacharach and his main-man lyricist Hal David (plus some others). The music issued in a continuous stream to suggest – nothing more – a scenario of love and loss and the songs stood up brilliantly to loving reinterpretation. What’s It All About? presumably introduced this imperishable repertoire to a generation not terribly familiar with it, but for someone of my age it was 90 minutes of bliss during which one smiled foolishly, mouthed the words, and thought of days now long gone.

Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre Co (February): It was down-sized, dirtied up and worked a treat. So much so that it’s soon embarking on a return season in rather bigger venues. Dean Bryant’s conception of the piece showed how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it was less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

The Drowsy Chaperone, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre at Hayes Theatre Co (March): This was one for the music-theatre nerds, and what a beauty. The Drowsy Chaperone purports to be the reflections of an everyman who just wants to take away from the theatre a tune he can hum, having enjoyed some pretty costumes, an amusingly tangled plot, a happy ending and definitely no audience participation. The show will preferably be short. On comes the musical within a musical, also called The Drowsy Chaperone. It is silly and formulaic, thus allowing The Drowsy Chaperone (the host musical) to shamelessly have it both ways. Creators Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) pay genuine homage to good old-fashioned entertainment while sending it up mercilessly. Our everyman, Man in Chair, yearns for the wit and glamour of Cole Porter but there is only the flimsiest facsimile of it in The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a reason they don’t make ‘em like that any more, but also why there’s nostalgia for earlier, more graceful times.

Miss Saigon, Cameron Mackintosh, London (May): Producer Cameron Mackintosh says it is the musical he was most asked to revive, so he did it. This Vietnam-war era version of Madama Butterfly has been given a terrific new production and its poignancies still resonate as vividly as they did when the show first opened in 1989.

Les Miserables, Cameron Mackintosh, Melbourne (July): The musical is still selling its socks off so this is a revival of something that never went away. It’s not subtle theatre or intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart; a big story told in bold strokes. The new version, which opened in Melbourne and is Sydney-bound, is very, very well done indeed.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret, starring Christie Whelan-Browne (August): I’d seen this before but it certainly bore repeating. Under the direction of Dean Bryant, who also wrote the show – him again! He’s everywhere! – Whelan-Browne channeled the pop star and her music to demonstrate the corrosive effect of fame on a kid who became the family bread-winner way, way too early. This wasn’t satire; it was tragedy. Whelan-Browne has performed Britney off and on for some years and it looks, sadly, as if it’s had its last outing.

Miracle City, Hayes Theatre Co (October): Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s 1996 musical finally got the revival so many music-theatre lovers wanted, and it was good. Barnstorming Christianity and a lust for worldly achievement combined to explode spectacularly within the 90-minute span of a Sunday morning televangelism show. Echoes of A Doll’s House were loud in Blazey Best’s terrific performance as an obedient wife who’d been married far too young.

The Legend of King O’Malley, Don’t Look Away (December): The rollicking Michael Boddy-Bob Ellis political musical got a rough-and-tumble revival that honoured the spirit of the piece and – ouch! – did not feel at all like a period piece.

On Monday: Dance

Three for the road

The King and I, Princess Theatre, July 22; Into the Woods, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 22; Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s, Melbourne

COME October next year Les Miserables will have been running for 30 years in London, longer than any other musical. Well, I suppose it’s possible Cameron Mackintosh will close the show before then, just as it is possible I will win a large amount of money in the lottery, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Thirty years! Who would have thought it? Certainly not the critics who failed to see its merits when it opened at the Barbican in a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. It was described by Michael Ratcliffe in The Observer as “a witless and synthetic entertainment” and by Francis King in The Sunday Telegraph as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness”.

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

As Lyn Gardner – who was one of the nay-sayers in 1985 – suggested in The Guardian in 2010 on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, Les Mis succeeds precisely because it is a Victorian melodrama, a story that deals in big emotions and wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no ambiguity in this version of Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel. Against a roiling background of social injustice, a good man is hounded by a self-righteous one. The nobility of self-sacrifice, the pain of unrequited love, the pathos of early death, the rapacity of opportunists, the gallantry of young idealists – these qualities are deliberately drawn in bold strokes.

So no, this isn’t subtle theatre nor is it intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart. If this is synthetic entertainment, so be it. The more than 65 million people who have seen it love it to bits and its creators are crying all the way to the bank.

The staging that opened in Melbourne this month hasn’t supplanted the original version – Mackintosh claims the West End production may have another decade of life in it – but is in the interesting position of being a revival of something that never went away. Thirty years is a long time in theatre technology and this version takes advantage of them. The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.

At the matinee I saw Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) were riveting antagonists and both in superb voice. Gleeson sang Bring Him Home with touching grace and crowned it with streams of pure gold in falsetto; Tee was equally persuasive in creating character through timbre and phrasing, dark and aggressive. As Fantine Patrice Tipoki brought fresh insights to I Dreamed a Dream, starting simply and almost conversationally, while Kerrie Anne Greenland, making her professional music theatre debut as Eponine, is a huge find. The vile but perversely life-affirming Thenadiers were in the effortlessly scene-stealing hands of Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin, the latter substituting brilliantly for injured Lara Mulcahy. Light-voiced Euan Doidge (Marius) was a little under-powered in this company but gave a sensitive reading of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

Is Les Miserables a better musical than Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods? No, it’s not. There can be no argument that the Les Mis music, while exceptionally tuneful and stirring, can draw too often on bombast for effect and some of the lyrics land with a thud. Sondheim is, as we all know, a genius. But there was no doubt that Les Mis offered much more pleasure than did Victorian Opera’s production of Into the Woods. And yes, I’m taking into account the great differential in budget between the two. Obviously one has to cut one’s cloth according to one’s purse, but I have seen many cash-strapped theatre productions that have found better solutions to staging issues than did VO for Into the Woods. The main set element, cut-outs of trees that slid back and forth, failed rather dismally in its task of creating a sense of place and atmosphere.

Queenie van de Zandt was in killer voice as the Witch, Lucy Maunder was a lovely Cinderella, Rowan Witt was an appealing Jack and in the pivotal roles of Baker and Baker’s Wife David Harris and Christina O’Neill each had fine moments. Overall, though, there was a decided air of the production having been put on too quickly and without the best solutions found to stretching finite funds. (Not that the tickets were cheap – mine was $100 and that wasn’t top price.) The people involved were all highly experienced and Orchestra Victoria sounded just fine in the pit, but I couldn’t help but think a concert version may have been the way to go.

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

I took advantage of being in Melbourne to see Lou Diamond Phillips in the Opera Australia/John Frost production of The King and I. When the show opened in Brisbane Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the King and will do so again in Sydney. (He is currently appearing for OA in the title role in Don Giovanni.)

Phillips appeared in this production of The King and I when it went to Broadway in 1996 after premiering in Adelaide in 1991. He was nominated for a Tony award so he has good form in the role, and, as he is partly Filipino in heritage, has the advantage of looking a credible King of Siam. He’s a charismatic, forceful one too and has excellent chemistry with Lisa McCune’s pitch-perfect Anna. I enjoyed his performance greatly.

So, three musicals in the space of 36 hours and I had not exhausted Melbourne’s music-theatre possibilities. See what can happen if you don’t pull down all your theatres?

Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Then Perth in January and Sydney in March 2015. The King and I, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, until August 17. Sydney, September 7-November 1.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow

In March 2008, when I was still on staff at The Australian, I wrote a piece about musical theatre ahead of an Opera Australia production of My Fair Lady. With OA and John Frost opening The King and I in Brisbane, with Melbourne and Sydney seasons to follow, I pulled it out of the vault.

THE golden age of musical theatre started quietly. A young man was heard offstage – it was March 31, 1943 – extolling the joys of life and of that day in particular. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” he sang, a cappella. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …” Oklahoma!, and a new era, was under way.

The show was the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and its opening is one of the most inspired, and concise, pieces of scene and character setting in all musical theatre.

Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first, and with those first eight words (of which two are definite or indefinite articles) established an indelible image of open farmland on a sunny morning and, by association, the pleasant, optimistic nature of the man who notices such things. The rhythm of the line is clear and uncomplicated, and Rodgers supports it with a sweet melody that strolls along as easily as an old-fashioned country boy.

All this takes perhaps 10 seconds to get across.

Oklahoma! has a perfect structure and the score is one of the greatest light music scores ever written,” says David King, head of musical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Most of the competition for greatness comes from Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, with Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music coming from the pair in the space of 16 years. But they didn’t entirely corner the market. The dream run in the 1940s and 50s included Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, remarkable for the quality of their source material (from George Bernard Shaw, Damon Runyon and Shakespeare respectively) and the brilliance of their music and lyrics. More recent musicals might have one or two hit songs; shows in this group string them together like well-matched pearls. Expensive ones, too. If you’d invested $1000 in the original Oklahoma! your return would have been $2.5million.

That Oklahoma! has enduring appeal more than 60 years after its premiere attests to its quality: in 2008 there would be about 500 productions worldwide, including one at Perth-based WAAPA. But it goes further than mere popularity. Rodgers and Hammerstein set the standard and style for an era. The shows created in the space of little more than two decades, from 1943 to 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened, are the undisputed classics of the genre.

Writer Peter Stone [explains] Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove.

Gerald Bordman, author of American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, heads his chapter on this period The American Musical as a Conscious Art Form. What would become the musical started in the mid-1800s and developed out of popular theatrical traditions including operetta, melodrama, burlesque and revue.

Most commentators nominate 1866 as the start of the native art form, when a touring French ballet company found itself without a theatre and enterprising producers combined the talents of the danseuses with a melodrama that did have a theatre, The Black Crook. The young women of the ballet weren’t the only ones with legs, and the show ran and ran.

In the post-war 1920s the taste was for entertainment; in the 30s theatregoers wanted either escape from the Depression or socially relevant drama because of it. There was, however, a cluster of supremely talented people working in New York who would bring the light and shade together.

Hammerstein is a pivotal figure. His grandfather was a New York theatre district pioneer and, with Jerome Kern, he wrote the groundbreaking Show Boat (1927). With its racially integrated cast and a troubling theme of miscegenation, it foreshadowed the kind of work Hammerstein would do when he joined forces with Rodgers 15 years later. He was also an important mentor to Sondheim, who would much later reign over the high end of the market.

And Hammerstein was a lyricist of exceptional and subtle gifts. In their book Broadway: The American Musical, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon quote writer Peter Stone on Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove. In Carousel it’s If I Loved You, in Show Boat it’s Only Make Believe, in Oklahoma! there’s People Will Say We’re in Love.

Just how different Oklahoma! was from its immediate predecessors is illustrated by something that quickly passed into music theatre legend. A talent scout for the critic Walter Winchell went to New Haven to see a show, at that stage called Away We Go, which was having its out-of-town tryout. He cabled to Winchell the following assessment: No legs, no jokes, no chance!

The audience saw it differently, happy to view work that not only entertained and thrilled but often challenged as well. Oklahoma! became the first music theatre phenomenon, running for more than 2000 performances on Broadway.

The new breed of creators didn’t shy away from themes such as gang warfare (West Side Story), racism (South Pacific) and dispossession (Fiddler on the Roof), but it was in the context of well-made theatre that also provided the popular music of the day: Maria, Some Enchanted Evening, If I Were a Rich Man.

The genius, says Andrew Greene, who conducts My Fair Lady for Opera Australia in June, lies in the fact that “in (the classic) musicals it’s about the team: wonderful music, words, book and great choreography and direction, all coming together to create a wonderful night in the theatre”. No longer was the piece designed to revolve around a big-name star who sucked up most of the oxygen. Everything had to be in the service of the whole.

When a [Cole] Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Michael Grandage, director of the Donmar Warehouse production in London of Guys and Dolls, which is being staged in Melbourne, points to the detail and cohesion of its book. “From a directorial point of view, you’re able to approach a musical like Guys and Dolls exactly as you would one of the most perfectly made plays,” he says.

As with most classic periods, the golden age of the American musical was created by a relatively small number of people. They included composer and conductor Bernstein, the youthful Sondheim (as lyricist), producer David Merrick and director Hal Prince. The stellar Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wrote words as well as music: when a Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Crucially, dance became a force for concentrated storytelling, often psychologically revealing, for which Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins can take much of the credit. De Mille’s dream ballet for Oklahoma! and another for Carousel were so influential that she perhaps never received quite her due: soon everyone was doing what she did.

Robbins and de Mille came from the classical ballet world and didn’t see it as slumming from their duties at American Ballet Theatre. In fact Robbins, a forceful character who directed as well as choreographed, got the idea that became West Side Story while studying at the Actors Studio in New York, where Marlon Brando was among his peers. The exhilarating Act I Mambo in the re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet isn’t there for colour and movement. It reveals the depth of rivalry between the Puerto Rican and American gangs and, in the setting of a social dance, brings Tony and Maria together.

The porous divide between high art and the commercial theatre was manifest in a version of Aida, using Verdi’s music but translated to an American Confederacy setting and called My Darlin’ Aida. Obviously it didn’t enter the pantheon, but it does point to a general taste for music written for a more classic tradition of vocal training. Opera singer Ezio Pinza had huge success as Emile in South Pacific, and My Fair Lady called for a gifted soprano and got one in Julie Andrews. Rising opera star Taryn Fiebig will sing the role for Opera Australia.

OA’s chief executive Adrian Collette says the strong book is central to the appeal of My Fair Lady. It’s adapted from “a tough and polemical play by George Bernard Shaw … what the music unfailingly brings to it is the potential for romance. It keeps its essential ambiguity to the very end, but overlays it with this wonderfully romantic music.”

Greene says American musicals have been part of the lighter repertoire in European opera houses for many years, and is pleased to see OA tackling My Fair Lady after many years of Gilbert and Sullivan (OA has also staged Fiddler on the Roof).

“[Frederick] Loewe was amazing. He was a direct descendant of a 19th-century lieder composer of Austrian descent. We find him not only being able to write wonderful romantic-style pop tunes. He was able to [write in the manner of] the British music-hall style for My Fair Lady – Get Me to the Church on Time, With a Little Bit of Luck – and also something like They Call the Wind Maria from Paint Your Wagon. He was a musical chameleon.”

Like all movements, this one was finite. Times, tastes and methods changed. A show such as Cabaret (1966) mostly presented its songs not as rising out of ordinary activity but within the context of the Kit Kat Klub where Sally Bowles worked. A Chorus Line (1975) stripped away all the trappings and was a more or less plotless show about people trying to get into a show.

The bubble had very much burst by the Broadway season of 1967-68. William Goldman in his book The Season saw everything that year. There were 14 new musicals and only one hit: the endearing but chaotic Hair. To come: the rock musical, Sondheim (a kind of one-man style), the British “popera” invasion spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Disneyfication and the jukebox musical.

It’s hard to see anything other than Sondheim lasting another 50 years but that doesn’t stop people from trying, year after year, to write the next hit. King says the New York Music Theatre Festival each year premieres about 40 new musicals – “there’s an enormous amount of stuff written” – and a few composers, Adam Guettel (Rodgers’s grandson) and Michael John LaChiusa chief among them, are writing works of note.

And a Broadway that can offer, simultaneously, musical versions of Frank Wedekind’s wildly controversial 1891 play dealing with youthful sexuality, Spring Awakening, and the perky Legally Blonde – King calls it imaginative and witty – is far from being dead, no matter how much people hanker for the glory days and start reading it the last rites.

The King and I, presented by Opera Australia and John Frost, QPAC, Brisbane, until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1.

THE BEST OF THE BEST FROM THE GOLDEN AGE

Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1943

On the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, developed from Jerome Robbins’s ballet Fancy Free for American Ballet Theatre, 1944

Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1945

Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin, 1946

Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter, 1948

South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949

Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, 1950

The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1951

My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1956

West Side Story, music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1957

The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1959

Gypsy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1959

Fiddler on the Roof, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1964